A mission of giving: CERT volunteers bring aid to hurricane victims

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Hurricane Michael may be almost a year in the past, but for many of the residents of the hurricane-torn Florida Panhandle, life is still far from normal.
Despite that fact that many homes west of Leon County are still covered in tarps and there are still tent cities in some of the communities that were destroyed by the October 2018 hurricane, the start of the 2019-2020 school year means students are returning to school despite the face of struggling in post-hurricane survival.
“There have been so many donation drives for back-to-school supplies,” said Roxanne Spear, director of the Jefferson and Leon County Rainbows Edge Center. Despite the fact that her organization is the local expert in equine rescue and rehabilitation, Spear's group was heavily involved in missions of aid for animals and people alike following Hurricane Michael.
Spear pointed out that while multiple groups in Florida ensured that students who lived in the hurricane-impacted areas would be prepared for their new school year with books, bags and supplies, she had yet to see a fundraising and donation drive to gather school clothes for the returning students.
So Spear and her organization stepped forward to fill the need and collect school clothing for students who were heading back to school despite their hurricane-impacted lives.
While Spear did the work organization the clothing drive, it was the hard work of Jefferson County's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) that successfully concluded the clothing drive.
CERT responders are educated volunteers who are prepared to handle emergency in the event that a natural disaster takes place. CERT volunteers are typically trained in basis disaster response skills such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization and disaster medical operations.
In Jefferson County, the CERT program is operated out of the Jefferson County Sheriff Office's Division of Emergency Management (JCEM) and is under the wing of Emergency Management Director Paula Carroll.
Starting on Tuesday, Aug. 13, the Jefferson County CERT program held a new series of classes to train a new wave of volunteers – including several minors.
Despite their young age, these teen and pre-teen CERT volunteers are equipped to handle several light aspects of disaster preparedness, emergency response and first aid.
The teen CERT responders were given their first task when Spear reached out the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office to request their assistance in transporting the collected school clothing and seeing that it was placed in the hands of a distribution agent in Florida's Bay County.
Without a second thought, Carroll agreed to help and put Jefferson County's CERT volunteers to the task.
On Friday, Aug. 23, Paula Carroll, three adult CERT volunteers and two teen CERT volunteers transported a truck and trailer full of clothing to Bay County, where they were met with a local individual who would see that they clothing was properly distributed throughout the hurricane-torn community.
“It was boxes and boxes of clothing,” said Carroll. The group brought over a completely filled enclosed trailer of clothing and also managed to fill Carroll's truck with youth school clothes.
According to Carroll, while a majority of hurricane victims have healed and are moving forward, some of the North Florida panhandle – almost a year after Hurricane Michael – is still living in tents.
For the families whose homes are gone, knowing that their children will have fresh, clean school clothes to wear to class can mean a lot.
“This was just something good to be involved in,” concludes Carroll.
While outreach to other communities is part of what CERT volunteers can be called upon to do, there is also a lot that the adult and youth volunteers will have to keep them busy during natural disasters in Jefferson County.
CERT volunteers can be expected to help run the disaster shelter in the event of a natural disaster that requires people to leave their homes and find safety elsewhere, might be asked to assist in search and rescue pursuits with local law enforcement and respond to emergencies that impact Jefferson County.
Currently, there are 21 adult CERT volunteers registered with the JCEM and 10 youth volunteers – and Paula Carroll is looking to grow the program.
Individuals who are interested in learning more or joining the Community Emergency Response Team can contact Jefferson County Emergency Management at (850) 342-0211.